Today we are going to tackle a highly confusing subject for many writers—In medias res. In medias res quite literally means in the middle of things. This is a literary tactic that has been used since the days of Odysseus. It is a tactic that forces the writer forward, to begin the story near the heart of the problem.
The Trouble with In Medias Res
Ah, but this is where we writers can get in trouble. I see writers beginning their novels with high-action gun battles, blowing up buildings, a heart-wrenching, gut-twisting scene in a hospital or at a funeral, all in an effort to “hook the reader” by “starting in the middle of the action.” Then when they get dinged/rejected by an agent or editor, they are confused.
But I started right in the action! What is more “in the action” than a high-speed chase through Monte Carlo as a bomb ticks down to the final seconds?
Bear with me a few moments, and I will explain why this is melodrama and not in medias res.
Commercial Fiction Ain’t A Tale of Two Cities
For many centuries, there was a literary tendency to begin “in the early years” leading up to the story problem. Authors would wax on rhapsotic about the setting and spend 10,000 words or more “setting up” the story. The reader was privy to “why such and such character” became a whatever. There was a lot of heavy character development and explaining the why of things.
This, of course was fine, because in the 18th century, no writer was competing with television, movies or Facebook.
Thus if a book was a thousand pages long, it just meant it must have been extra-awesome. Also, authors, back in the day, were often paid by the word, thus there was a lot of incentive to add extra fluff and detail, layer on the subplots and pad the manuscript more than a Freshman term paper. Writing lean hit the author in the piggy bank, so most authors lived by the motto, No adverb left behind.
Then Hemingway came on the scene and…well, let’s get back to my point.
In medias res was not employed by many early novelists. They started the book when the protagonist was in the womb (being facetious here) and their stories often took on epic proportions.
Modern writers can’t do this. Yes there are exceptions to every rule, so save the e-mails. Just trust me when I say that modern readers have been spoiled by Hollywood and iPhones. They are used to instant gratification, and most modern readers will not give us writers 15,000 words to get the the point.
These days, especially for traditional publishing, we need to get right into the heart of the action from the get-go. But if “the heart of the action” doesn’t involve a gun battle, funeral or cliffhanging scene, what the heck does it look like?
For Those Who Have Slept Since Seeing Star Wars
It is the front gate of Six Flags over Texas.
Do we need to start in the years that Kristen was too young to go to Six Flags? How she would see her teenage cousins leave for a day of roller coasters and cry herself to sleep in her toddler bed for not getting to ride the roller coasters? How she vowed at four that she, too, would one day brave the Shock Wave?
Do we start the story on the biggest loop of the roller coaster? The screams and terror mixed with glee?
No, that’s too far in. If we start the story on a Big Loop (HUGE ACTION–like car chases, bank heists, etc.) then we risk the rest of the book being anti-climactic. So where do we begin?
We begin at the gates of Six Flags over Texas.
We see young Kristen in the back of the station wagon and as her parents pull into the giant parking lot. We are present when she catches a glimpse of the Shock Wave (story problem) in the distance. Wow, it is bigger than she thought. We walk with Kristen through the line to get into the amusement park, and get a chance to know her and care about her before she makes the decision to ignore the Tea Cups and take on the roller coaster (Rise to Adventure). Kristen could have totally chickened out and stayed on the baby rides, but that would have been a boring story. Yet, because the Tea Cups are in the context of the larger ride, it means something when she decides she MUST ride the roller coaster.
In medias res means we start as close to the overall story problem as possible.
In my little example, the GIANT roller coaster represents the story problem. We have a choice to start far earlier than in the parking lot of Six Flags….but we risk losing the reader in the Land of “Who Gives a Crap?”. We, as the narrators, can also choose to start on the actual ride, but then we have a different problem. The readers are then hurled into the action after the decision (rise to the adventure) has been made. Thus, we didn’t get time to give a gnat’s booty about seven-year-old Kristen.
Also, since Kristen is already locked down and can’t walk away, there is no conflict. It isn’t like Kristen can step out of the coaster on the first loop and take on the Tea Cups instead. As long as Kristen cannot make the wrong choice or give into her fears, there really is no story. Kristen MUST have a chance to fail….to walk away and go play the Ring-Toss instead.
Likewise, our protagonists MUST have opportunities to fail or to walk away. This is why they are eventually called “heroes.” Anyone else would have waved the white flag in the face of such circumstances. This is why we read fiction. We like bravery, courage and resilience.
What Star Wars the New Hope Can Teach Us About In Medias Res
To give you guys another example, let’s pretend it is 1977 and we are sitting in the theater watching the movie Star Wars. Star Wars (The New Hope) is a PERFECT example of in medias res. When we start the story, wars have been fought and we are in the heart of the conflict. The twins are grown and living separate lives and Anakin has already whined himself over to the Dark Side and become Darth Vader.
Begin on Tatooine
So if you don’t want to start at the Gates of Six Flags, then feel free to Begin on Tattoine.
Star Wars begins (with the protagonist) on the planet of Tatooine just before his life will intersect with the antagonist’s agenda. We meet young Luke in his Normal World and get a chance to meet his aunt and uncle. We get a chance to see his normal life, so we have a basis for comparison when everything goes sideways. We care when Luke’s family is senselessly slaughtered. We are there when Luke is given a choice. Ignore everything that’s happened and return to moisture-farming OR step on the path to adventure.
What NOT to Do
We DO NOT begin the adventure with Little Luke looking at the stars wondering who his father is or longing for exciting adventures in space. It is too early and we aren’t close enough to the story problem–when the Emperor’s agenda intersects with Luke’s life and alters it forever.
We also DO NOT start the story with Luke whizzing through space on the Milleneum Falcon dodging bad guys. That would have been exciting, but jarring and we wouldn’t have cared about any of the passengers. We also wouldn’t have had time to see the overall story problem—The Emperor, Darth and the Death Star.
I feel part of why the prequels
sucked were not as good is because Lucas tried to go back and explain the story that we already had loved and accepted. Among many other reasons.
We really didn’t need to know WHY Annakin Skywalker turned evil or even HOW the Force worked or WHAT it was to enjoy The New Hope movies. In fact, we kind of liked the movies better before we “knew.”
The Force was better before it was explained.
Some of you are starting too far into the action, which is jarring. But others might feel the need to go back and explain everything. Why your protag is thus and such. Why the world is la la la. How the magic did whatever. Guess what? You really don’t need to explain.
I have used this example before. What if you went to a magic show? The magician makes a woman float. As the audience, we cry out, “How can he DO THAT?” What if the magician stopped mid-show, flipped on the lights and pointed out all the mirrors and wires? What would it do?
It would ruin the magic.
Keep Your Literary Magic
Same with our writing. Sure, some things (backstory) can be explained. But, I will be blunt. Most backstory can be explained in dialogue, real-time in flow with the narrative. Flashbacks and prologues really just bog down the narrative more times than not. Yes, you might want to explain why your vampire is dark and brooding, but why? Many readers will keep reading in hopes they can piece together enough hints to figure it out. Just because readers might want something, doesn’t mean it is in our best interests as authors to give in.
Sure. Star Wars fans all thought they wanted to know WHY and HOW, but once we got what we wanted????
Finding the Literary Sweet Spot
Thus, as writers, we are looking for that literary sweet spot, just close enough to the inciting incident to make readers feel vested, but not so far that we are basically beginning our book with a scene that should be the Big Boss Battle at the end. In medias res is tough and we aren’t always going to nail it on the first try. The key is practice and study. Movies are really wonderful to study because in screenplays, Act One is brutally short.
Watch how the best movies introduce the characters and the problems and see how efficient they are at relaying backstory in dialogue. And sure, some movies use flashbacks, but we always have to remember that the visual medium is different. We can “see” differences and don’t have to “keep up with” a zillion characters. We are passive and watching with our eyes. We don’t have to recreate the world in our head.
Reading is very active, so flashbacks always risk jarring the reader out of the narrative. Also, if you study screenwriting, great screenplays, much like great novels, do not rely on flashbacks. Heavy use of flashbacks is generally a sign of an amateur screenwriter. Highly skilled writers, whether on the page or the screen, are masters of maximizing every word and keeping the story real-time.
So what are your thoughts? Does this help you understand in medias res better? Do you have anything to add?
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#1 by tomwisk on January 9, 2012 - 1:55 pm
You couldn’t be more right. Having the reader take a running start at a story is a formula for failure. You’ve got to get them by the shirt font and pull them in. Once they’re inside the action you can let them loose. The whole thing is, at what point does the writer start the action? We all love our babies and want the reader to know them as well as we do, but details of the birth of the protagonist is a little too far back if it’s a story about WWII.
When I get too wordy I stop take a deep breath and read Raymond Carver. He did it the hard way short-short fiction. I get lost in detail and think I’m creating atmosphere when all I’m doing is watching the word count. A small diamond is more valuable than a 10 carat zirconium.
#2 by CV Wilde on January 9, 2012 - 1:55 pm
Thanks for the wonderful post, Kristen!
Good grief, how many times have I stared forlornly at the first three Star Wars movies, wondering what the hell was George Lucas thinking?
But you’re right – keep the magic. Draw your reader along by using breadcrumbs of information. As a reader, I sometimes like to make up the beginnings for the characters I’m reading – it’s another way of making the reading experience interactive. If you tell everything, there’s nothing left for the reader to do.
Great book, by the way (We are not alone). I recommend it to every class I teach on social media. Look for a post on it in the near future!!!
#3 by Traci on January 9, 2012 - 1:58 pm
Wow, GREAT post. So accurate, with perfect examples. Sharing this with my blog….
#4 by Wendy S. Russo on January 9, 2012 - 1:59 pm
I begin my novel at a point near the end, then rewind 2 years to explain how the teen couple gets to that spot. I tell it the first time from her POV, and when it rolls around the second time, I tell it from his…and he has much more information than she does.
I had Operation: Swordfish in mind when I plotted it. If I had heard the term in medias res before then, I had forgotten it, but I have been using that term to describe the structure since I read about it. I okay with being wrong. I’m also okay with melodrama…first love of teenagers goes sideways, seems fitting.
Thank you for using Star Wars to explain this! 🙂
#5 by JM Randolph on January 9, 2012 - 2:04 pm
This is helpful to me right now because it’s my core issue on my WIP. I am starting in the right place. It’s where I go after that gets dicey. When I submit chapters to my critique groups they’re asking for more “why”, which I am coming to see doesn’t mean more back story, it means more effective writing in the right now. Bah. Thanks for this. Han shot first.
#6 by Renee Schuls-Jacobson on January 9, 2012 - 2:10 pm
Kristen: This is the hardest thing for me. I still can’t seem to edit out the unnecessarily little darlin’s. I can’t tell if I’m going into too much detail or if my background is rich and helpful to the story. I can’t seem to just get into the big part of my story. I keep creating backstory. What’s wrong with me. Luckily @runningwithel and I have been peer editing. She sees my work and can edit me better than I can do it alone. I think she feels the same way. I need that extra set of eyes. Why can’t I see it in my own writing?
#7 by Jess Witkins on January 9, 2012 - 2:13 pm
Ok, this actually really helped me because so many conference/writing contests that ask for a first page demand an action line, and there is a lot of advice out there saying this is the way to go. I hated it, felt weird. So glad to hear as I battle my dueling projects that I don’t also need an opening war scene!
P.S. Six Flags was my favorite place growing up, and I too had to stand and wait at the top of Shockwave while my siblings rode it cause I wasn’t big enough yet. Sad times. But I LOVE roller coasters now. Can WWBC take a field trip to an amusement park?! I’m thinking something along the lines of the movie “Summer School”?
#8 by Anne R. Allen on January 9, 2012 - 2:17 pm
Deciding where to start the story is one of the toughest things for a fiction writer to learn, and I think you’ve done a great job of explaining how to choose the right scene. The “in media res” advice causes a lot of trouble for beginning writers. So many of us end up starting too far into the story. I know I did. I ended up going back and writing new first chapters.for most of my books and improved them immensely. Now I use the “hero’s journey” formula that starts with the “call to adventure” instead of plunking down my reader in the middle of the story.
#9 by Joe Iriarte on January 9, 2012 - 2:18 pm
Bear with me a few moments, and I will explain why . . .
I see what you did there! 😉
#10 by 1000th.monkey on January 9, 2012 - 2:18 pm
Yup, when the whole fun of *wondering* is taken away… boy can movies/books be a chore to get through…
#11 by Lanette Kauten on January 9, 2012 - 2:19 pm
You mentioned why backstory doesn’t work, but what about the times it does work? For example; PICTURES OF YOU and (to a lesser degree) IN THE WOODS both use backstory effectively, and I love how the transitions are so smooth and virtually flawless.
BTW, the Shockwave was one scary roller coaster, but I couldn’t wait until I was tall enough to ride it.
#12 by Author Kristen Lamb on January 9, 2012 - 2:21 pm
I said there were always exceptions to the rule. But generally, flashbacks are more likely to get us in trouble ;).
#13 by Paul Philip Carter on January 9, 2012 - 2:40 pm
This is very helpful. My first novel, epic fantasy, gave me fits as to where to start the story. Many revisions later I found a sweet spot, and it was great practice. For my current novel, urban sci-fi, the sweet spot almost screamed at me to use it, but that is not yet the norm. I think your advice will make the sweet spot even easier to find.
#14 by K.B. Owen on January 9, 2012 - 2:53 pm
The original Star Wars film actually starts with the intergalactic (or wherever) chase and boarding of Princess Leia’s ship and the escape of the droids before we get to Luke. Would that be considered the hook?
I love it when you talk about Star Wars!
#15 by Author Kristen Lamb on January 9, 2012 - 3:19 pm
Yes and no. If you chopped off all those scenes with Darth and Leia and started on Tatooine, the story STILL would have hooked at the moment Luke and his uncle bought the strange droids. Those first scenes in space are really the movie equivalent of a prologue, which generally we should shy away from in the written word. We really don’t need those scenes to “get” the story. If we missed that entire intro, we would still understand the story and would have been hooked.
Yet again, even those first scenes are in medias res. Leia isn’t captured as an infant or a teenager. This kidnapping happens very close to the action/heart of the story problem. The story problem hasn’t really even occurred (for the hero). Had the droids run into a meteor, Luke would have remained a moisture farmer, oblivious to the Emperor and the Death Star.
Trying to hook with prologues is risky. Some genres get away with it. Murder mystery, suspense and thriller use this tactic. But, even with the use of a prologue, we still have to hook the reader to care about the protagonist.
#16 by TheSolomonPress.com on January 9, 2012 - 2:58 pm
I always thought this was common sense.
#17 by Stephanie Scott on January 9, 2012 - 3:18 pm
In the beginning, there were droids. And there was a princess who didn’t understand what it meant to take cover.
I also love basically any somewhat in-depth look at Star Wars.
Good post about where to start a story, it’s always a tough one for me. I rewrite my beginnings more than anything else.
#18 by August McLaughlin on January 9, 2012 - 3:42 pm
A friend of mine was going on and on about A Tale of Two Cities the other day… “YOU MUST read it,” he said. When I asked how his writing was going he said, “It’s not. No time.”
I’m a big fan of reading, but have to say I prefer the modern lengths. 😉
#19 by JennInAustin on January 9, 2012 - 3:56 pm
Thank you for this! It really helped me visualize the concept. (Ok, so I’m a huge Star Wars girl. Wanted to be Princess Leia…the whole bit.) What I really loved about your post is that it gave me the technical terms to describe why I felt stuck part way through my NaNoWriMo novel and why I ended up reworking it so that I began the action in a different place. I had no idea a Latin term applied to that experience. Way cool.
#20 by Catherine Johnson on January 9, 2012 - 4:18 pm
My only long story starts with turning into a car park and yet I need more world-building. I’m wondering if I have started in the right place could I just do it through dialogue while they are in the car. Like you say, if it was further back, the normal life stuff is just too boring. Thanks for the tips, I don’t know how you manage to be so consistently funny 🙂
#21 by Ann Stanley on January 9, 2012 - 4:26 pm
Thanks for the advice. Knowing exactly when in the story to start seems so crucial, but also seems somewhat obvious. On the other hand, I always find myself confused by backstory and flashback issues. I am reading (well, listening to) Jane Green’s novel, Second Chance, and it is practically all about the characters looking back at the past. She overdoes it to the point of annoying, but don’t most novels have at least some of this in them?
#22 by Tamara LeBlanc on January 9, 2012 - 5:22 pm
Huge Star Wars geek here, and I totally agree, the first three movies (that came out before CGI was a household term) were the bomb. Empire Strikes Back was the bomb digity- my favorite.
I really, really wanted to love the next three, but you’re right, we didn’t need to know all that backstory. And, to tell you the truth, we didn’t need all the computer generated imagery either.
I will admit to one thing though, I’ve always secretly wanted to see the big screen explanation of how Han Solo and Chewbacca met.
As far as In Medias Res goes, you hit the Dewback on its reptilian snout.
I try my best to begin each of my novels in the right place. Over the years I’ve learned a lot so I think most of the time I get it right, but It’s no easy feat. I’ve judged my fair share of writing contests and unfortunately there are more misses than hits in that regard.
But with bloggers like you, writers have a place to learn, discuss and then hone these difficult skills.
Fantastic post, Kristen. After reading it I feel good enough to pull the ears off a Gundark!
Thank you for your wisdom and have a spectacular evening,
#23 by Linda Adams on January 9, 2012 - 5:24 pm
I have the opposite problem. If someone tells me to start in the middle of the action, it translates as “middle of the story.” I actually can’t really tell reliable where the story should start, so I end up backing it up from where I think it should start and then backing it up again. And probably one more time during the revision. If it starts too late, it’s a horrid nightmare in the revision because the setup pops up in weird places.
#24 by Gloria Richard Author on January 9, 2012 - 6:06 pm
Great points, Kristen (as always). I thought about Harry Potter as I read this. Much more familiar with that plot and series. We got to know poor Harry, care about the horrid life he lived with his comically dysfunctional guardians. And, then, the notes began.
Back story? I’ve been told to write them out during the character sketches. Pretend you’re smashing them into slivers and slide the important ones in during internalization or dialog. I find it effective. Just a snippet. Hey, this sharp glass popped a bubble in my brain. Wonder what that’s all about.
But, don’t break your promise to the reader. If that sliver is there, it has to be there for a reason. Agree? Disagree?
#25 by Sabrina Alexander on January 9, 2012 - 6:30 pm
This is the best explanation of in medias res I’ve found. This coupled with another article on knowing where to begin has put my WIP back on track. Thank you.
#26 by heatheraine on January 9, 2012 - 7:11 pm
Too right. I was just sitting and writing out some details on note cards (because I’m better with physical objects to move around.) I wanted to SEE where my inciting incident came in and how long my middle really was to the eye. I was wondering if I entered the story in at the right spot and if the jazz going on before the inciting incident could occur after. I think there are few I will be moving, because like you say, we shouldn’t just flash a new boy friend for goodness sake!
Thanks for the tips!
#27 by ddscott on January 9, 2012 - 7:28 pm
Another superfab post, Kristen!
This is absolutely, without a doubt, the best explanation of in medias res I’ve ever read!!!
Well done, my friend!
I’m sooo sharing this one!!!
P.S. And yeah…I wasn’t real crazy about The New Hope films either…and I sooo wish I’d kept all my Star Wars action figures from the original trilogy!
#28 by Liv Rancourt on January 9, 2012 - 8:10 pm
This is really good. Figuring out where the story starts is sometimes the hardest part of the whole piece. Thanks so much.
#29 by Jordan McCollum on January 9, 2012 - 10:12 pm
Great example! (ANH is my favorite Star Wars movie.)
#30 by Ed Griffin on January 9, 2012 - 11:22 pm
Great column, Kristen. Thanks. I love your clear and simple examples. Your whole column reminds me of David Mamet’s comment — Come in late and leave early
#31 by Paul Welch on January 10, 2012 - 2:18 am
These examples are wonderful.. it is so great to have the opportunity to see the logic applied to “real things.” It’s a great way to start training the brain and the eye to pick up on it sooner.. you can literally feel the grey matter shifting inside your noggin! Thanks.
#32 by Team Oyeniyi on January 10, 2012 - 3:37 am
I’m not a Star Wars fan (probably the only one in the world) but I get the drift.
You know, I had decided to start my book at a different point that I had originally written. Now I read this, I am not sure I should – I think perhaps that should be my second chapter and I should leave my original first as the first! Thanks so much for confusing me! 😆
I’m sure a good editor will sort it out for me. I hope.
#33 by EmilyR on January 10, 2012 - 8:17 am
Excellent distinction between starting in action and beginning just prior to the inciting incident. Thank you!
#34 by Ed Griffin on January 10, 2012 - 9:51 am
PS I linked your blog from mine on January 10
Writer’s Write Daily
#35 by chitrader on January 10, 2012 - 10:19 am
*I couldn’t add anything more to the discussion without being redundant, so I just left a “comment.” 😉
#36 by lanceschaubert on January 10, 2012 - 12:08 pm
Funny you should mention it, Augustine did start in the womb ;D
Just read some inciting incident lit that paired well with this. Tanks!
#37 by Adriana Ryan on January 10, 2012 - 1:59 pm
Lovely, entertaining look at the true meaning of in medias res. Thank you!
#38 by Monique Headley on January 10, 2012 - 3:15 pm
This is just the confirmation I was looking for and luckily, I started my story in the perfect place! Thanks Kristen! A little confirmation every once in a great while is a good thing!
#39 by Olivia Kelly on January 10, 2012 - 4:52 pm
Great blog, thanks! When I first joined a critique group, as a baby writer, everyone kept leaving me the same annoying comment. “This is great, but I think it’s back story. You might want to start closer to the current story.” Now, as a toddler writer, I understand what they were talking about! No one really wants to read a book that starts with “So and So was born on a Tuesday.”, or if they do, So and So had better reach adulthood in three paragraphs. (By the way, I fixed that little issue and the novel is SO much better for it.)
#40 by Sasha on January 10, 2012 - 5:13 pm
I love this article… but I have a question, what do you think then of the flash forwarding and backwards in LOST? I really loved that part of the story and the way it was told…
I enjoy books that deal with parallel realities/stories and or times, like Katherine Neville’s “The Eight” where she tells two stories one of the present and one of the past and does it very skillfully so one doesn’t get lost in the narrative…
What is your opinion about those?
Again, great article!
#41 by Author Kristen Lamb on January 10, 2012 - 8:46 pm
I like them if they are done well. LOST got a lot of people lost and there were a ton of loose ends that eventually annoyed viewers. Parallel realities are insanely tough to plot and don’t count as typical flashbacks. Usually they are parallel plots running in tandem. Fried Green Tomatoes is a great example. If you separated the present line and the past thread they would both fit onto a narrative frame. Many writers use flashbacks to explain and info-dump. That is a totally different basket of bananas.
So a long way of saying I dig parallel stories…if executed well.
#42 by Sasha on January 10, 2012 - 9:09 pm
Excellent! Thank you very much for replying to my question… I asked specially because that is the kind of thing I love, parallel realities, also I wrote a story that has a parallel lives thing going on… reading your article made me thing I should take a look at it so it is not messy for the reader. Thank you very much again for the article.
#43 by Author Kristen Lamb on January 10, 2012 - 9:13 pm
Plot them separately then join them at hinge points. You’re welcome :D. Hope it helps.
#44 by Sasha on January 10, 2012 - 9:25 pm
Excellent idea! I’ll do so! Thanks a lot!
#45 by marjogo75 on January 10, 2012 - 9:15 pm
Kristen I really like your blog, and I can tell you that I remember the summer of 1977 when Star Wars A New Hope came out. The opening music and the star ship going across the the screen gave me chills. I love movies and it was the most exciting movie I ever saw. What an excellent way to teach in media res.
Your right about Anakin being such a whiner. I wanted him to die at the end by the end of the third movie. What a mama’s boy!
I also look forward to buying your book, We Are not Alone–the Writer’s Guide to Social media.
#46 by Donna Martin on January 10, 2012 - 10:02 pm
Thanks for such an important post, Kristen! All I want to know is where were you 20 years ago? I could have used your help back then! ;0)
#47 by Jenny Hansen on January 10, 2012 - 10:39 pm
You know I LOVE the Star Wars posts! I’m going to take this and run back to my book and figure out if I started it too soon. I do have a dude trying to take a hostage in the first chapter but not in the first few pages. Hmmmm…
p.s. I sang the praises of drinking the WANA Kool-aid today at More Cowbell.
#48 by Barbara McDowell on January 11, 2012 - 1:27 am
Fantastic explaination, Kristen! This has been a struggling point for me and where I’m learning to go back and start earlier. Not doing so dumped me so far into stories that the reader was either confused by what was going on or confused when I then toss in some flashback to explain it all. Yeah, committed two sins there. I will have this article in hand for reference when I revisit the start (well, current start) of my novel.
#49 by V.V. Denman on January 11, 2012 - 10:41 am
I’ve rewritten my first chapter so many times I’m cross-eyed. But I’m getting closer. Thanks for the input. Excellent.
#50 by David Jón Fuller on January 11, 2012 - 5:20 pm
Thanks for this post! I can remember first learning the term ‘in media res’ when playing the Star Wars roleplaying game in 1987 — with ANH as the prime example. Didn’t fully appreciate that in plot / story terms until this post, but it affirms something I’m trying to do in my WiP — get the central problem of the book right into the first chapter, but making the characters engaging so the problem is worth caring about. I wish I had started studying story structure in…. oh, 1987.
#51 by Sher A Hart (@SherAHart) on January 11, 2012 - 7:57 pm
This is very interesting, but I’m not sure you represent the typical male preference. I originally started my middle grade story after the MC had found the item that causes trouble going forward, right when it was about to become a serious threat to his life. I presented it at a conference for critique, and adult male authors who critiqued it lined out the bit of characterization before the action started. A couple of experienced female authors suggested I needed to start much sooner to create sympathy for the MC so I started with the scene where he had his second troublesome interaction with the object. This less life-threatening scene with more characterization and mystery was less effective for both sexes of a 7th grade class.
One girl suggested I start with the scene where he found the item. Remembering the conference disparity between sexes, I made that scene life-threatening with characterization mixed with action as the MC struggles to find the item, and both boys and girls liked it more. However, when the class read the original opening scene, now placed at the end of chapter 3, they all loved it as a cliffhanger. It might have been the best start after all, but with three chapters between the scenes, I’m not about to dump any because the class liked them all. I’m calling the third start good enough, although I’m still tweaking the scene.
Another note: I participated in a first page contest, and if I recall, the winner started in a high action scene. I would go back and check the amount of characterization if I could remember the website.
Your view on in media res resonates with me as being correct, but then I’m female. I would love to win a critique.
Last note: I’d have subscribed to your blog long ago if you offered RSS or Networked blogs. My email is terminally over-cluttered.
#52 by Author Kristen Lamb on January 11, 2012 - 8:06 pm
Narrative structure dictates that we need to start the protagonist in Normal World. We have to see how life is before the inciting incident or the inciting incident doesn’t mean anything. Humans intuitively understand narrative structure. Stories have a beginning, middle and an end. Even little kids know this. Now in middle grade, you will likely spend far less time in normal world and Act One since the overall page count is less. But think of Spiderman. The radioactive bite that offers superpowers means nothing if we don’t meet the geeky kid first. We can’t appreciate how this dorky kid’s life has changed.
When it comes to contests, I don’t know what to tell you. Not all contests are equal. Also, judges have to pick a winner, so they might have picked the best out of what was submitted. I would look to your genre and do what Les Edgerton recommends. Just spend a day reading beginnings. How do the top authors in your genre open their stories?
Also, middle grade boys are one of the toughest demographics and the one that reads the least (next to teenage boys). So if you have to choose between male and female preferences, I’d go for the one that will sell more books ;).
#53 by Sher A Hart (@SherAHart) on January 11, 2012 - 8:00 pm
I forgot to say it’s a boy book which I hope will attract reluctant readers, so the male preference takes precedence.
#54 by suzannesan on January 11, 2012 - 10:15 pm
Reading your blog, everyone’s response to your blog and your answers, makes me wonder if I have written too much about the protagonist in the normal life, prior to the inciting incident.
I know for certain that I did just that with my first draft, but when I started fine tuning my WIP, I was able to cut out 1000’s of unnecessary stuff; enough to write another book about government corruption!
If I had to compare a movie with my writing style, it would be more like “The Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood,” from the beginning to the end. I don’t know whether that’s good or bad; depends on whether you liked the movie and book I guess.
We’ll just have to wait and see once it’s published.
Thanks for your advice Kristen. You never fail to amaze me. I always learn something I needed to know.
#55 by Randy Attwood on January 11, 2012 - 11:41 pm
Literary sweet spot…great phrase and understanding. Must admit I stole this intro sweet spot for “The Saltness of Time” from Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”:
“I like these kinds of snows. They cancel things out.”
The voice that broke the silence in the cold room had the gravel-grumble tone that smokers get and keep – even after they stop smoking. The nervous plucking of his hands at his worn brown sweater said he still missed his cigarettes. His lined, but healthy, blood-perfused face meant he had smoked heavily most of his life before something had made him stop. Bypass surgery, I diagnosed.
There were five of us that night: myself and my fiancée, Stephanie, her sister, Kristin, and her boyfriend, Ted. And him. He was in his late forties or early fifties. Once thin, but now with a small cannonball pot – the result of not smoking and not changing his eating habits while his body’s nutritional needs had changed its. And not exercising. Nutrition and exercise were the new panaceas we were being taught in medical school.
On our way to spend Thanksgiving with my fiancée’s parents in western Kansas, we had stopped in Lawrence to pick up Kristin and Ted, both undergraduates, she majoring in theater, he in fine arts – painting. A snow storm had muscled us off the Kansas highway into a small town where we had found an old hotel, miraculously open. He, too, had found this prairie port and now we all sat in the lobby around a fire. Because the electricity was out, a kerosene lamp added its natural circle of light to the fireplace glow in the dingy room.
“This night reminds me of that other night,” the strange man continued. “Long ago, but not that many miles from where we are now…
#56 by hollyyoumans on January 12, 2012 - 12:34 am
Fantastic advice. I want to know more about your book! Going to peek through your website now.
#57 by Pelotard on January 12, 2012 - 1:52 am
I’ve actually found that when I start at the right spot, the story keeps writing itself. Too early, and I’m writing in treacle; the story stalls and I stare at a blank screen wondering what to write next. Too late, and I’ll have to stop the narrative and litter the page with flashbacks or just short explanations of what went before.
This might sound like I’m a pro, but the huge pile of discarded pages tells me otherwise. Although I started out writing short stories, so I got more practice than those who only try novels.
#58 by tomwisk on January 12, 2012 - 2:21 pm
Thanks for an out to a story I’ve been working on. Got a 1500 wd. limit on it. I got jammed and spent yesterday staring at the cursor and back spacing lines. I started too early. Doh. Gotta take all I’ve got written and reform it. Then move the story along.
#59 by Emmie Mears on January 13, 2012 - 1:51 am
Mmmm, Star Wars.
Awesome post, Kristen. I’ve been a wee bit fuzzy on what exactly is meant by in media res, and this helped quite a lot to clear up the fuzz.
Also, I have linked back to this post on my blog, after a charming and sexy picture of Darth Vader.
#60 by Amanda on January 13, 2012 - 4:10 am
#1 book that I couldn’t read cuz it dragged was treasure island (unfortunately it was a school book). As for a perfectly done ‘flashback’ filled story with a prologue that blessedly does it perfectly is krestly cole’s “dreams of a dark warrior”. Skillfully written. Definately not her first book.
#61 by Reetta Raitanen (@ReettaRaitanen) on January 14, 2012 - 2:16 am
I love it when you use Star Wars examples 😀 Great insights to where to start the story and how much time to devote to the Ordinary World.
The prologue with Princess Leia, Darth Vader and droids escaping is a great beginning IMO but being an avid reader of fantasy books, I am used to prologues. That’s another genre beside thrillers and mystery where prologues are common. Most of them aren’t done very well, though, and are redundant.
#62 by CF Winn on January 15, 2012 - 7:56 am
Food for thought. I agree with all of it. Now I’ve got to go back and make sure I’m hitting in medias res correctly. Thanks!
#63 by Laurie on January 31, 2012 - 9:39 pm
Great article!! I really don’t like the “new” Star Wars movies. ugh. You are right, we didn’t need to KNOW all that backstory!! I thought that enough backstory was given through dialogue in the “old” movies.
#64 by BFWilson on August 23, 2012 - 8:18 am
Reblogged this on Mr. Wilson's Webspace and commented:
Great post on using contemporary SciFi to Teach traditional Greek drama conventions.